The Price Of Fire: How The Humble Matchbox Is A Map To India's Political And Art History

The Price Of Fire: How The Humble Matchbox Is A Map To India's Political And Art History

The Matchbox is an essential commodity, not much different than rice, sugar, oil or cotton. The matchbox industry continued to operate even during the pandemic. 90% of labourers in the industry are women working out of semi-automated factories or manual single-room setups.

Before WWI, India imported matchboxes from Japan and Sweden. We didn’t start making our matchboxes until 1910 when Indian locals acquired skills from Japanese immigrants.

In 2021, owing to the rising inflation, increasing prices of raw materials and a global pandemic, the retail price of a matchbox doubled. This hike happened after 14 years of matchboxes retailing consistently for ₹ 1 pan India.

The first hike happened in 1995 when the cost of a single matchbox hiked from 25 paise to 50 paise. The 2nd hike was in 2007, the rate of a single box increased from 50 paise to ₹1.

One wonders what’s the significance of a matchbox, doesn’t every matchstick look like every other matchstick?

The accessibility and availability of lighters are limited to metropolitan cities. Most of India, especially people in rural India, still leans toward the matchbox.

When every matchstick looks like every other matchstick available, the packaging and visual appeal of a matchbox becomes the differentiator that roots out the competition.

Image Courtesy: Etsy

The prominent themes in the visual design of the Indian matchbox ranged from seemly random objects to Raja Ravi Varma paintings and political messaging and slogans. Matchboxes reflected real-time societal happenings and made art and politics accessible to the masses — the nationalist movement in India reflected onto the matchbox as illustrations of Gandhi and interpretations of Bharat Mata took the forefront.

Matchboxes also celebrated political milestones. The Indian Flag and Ashok Chakra were prominent post Independence. It was a means to advertise and popularise everything, be it Indian mythology, art, the Swadeshi movement or films.

Image Courtesy: LiveHistoryIndia

Today, this pop art has been incorporated into popular graphic art and contemporary designs in the form of album art, home decor, prints in fashion and more. Much like Indian shop signs and vehicle stickers, the Indian matchbox designers who illustrated history, unfortunately, remain anonymous and unrecognised.

The Zippo you pull out of your pocket says a lot about you, but the matchbox you pull out of your back pocket is a museum that traces India’s rich political and art history.

If you liked reading this we suggest you read:

Related Stories

No stories found.